Open Thinkering


Tag: knowledge

Why the knowledge vs. skills debate in education is wrong-headed.

Gnome heads

Back when I was a lowly trainee teacher I engaged in a debate with someone high up in the local authority after a training session. They were arguing that ‘skills’ are all we need to teach young people. I argued (as a History teacher) that they didn’t know what they were talking about.

Now, however, I realise that we were both wrong.

This post by Oliver Quinlan about A.C. Grayling’s presentation at the recent Education Festival got me thinking. Especially this bit:

What we should be looking for is not the acquisition of knowledge, but the acquisition of understanding. Many schools recognise that theory of knowledge and learning about learning are supportive of the rest of the curriculum. Grayling feels that this should be at the centre of the curriculum, not as an added extra.

And then yesterday, Tim Riches tweeted me the link to this post, pointing out how scary it is that the government are preventing people from talking about ‘skills’ in a curriculum review:

Among the wilder, though double-sourced by me, rumours I’ve heard about the curriculum review were that the word “skills” was banned from any documents by ministers, simply because they wanted to emphasise “knowledge”. While I am not going to get into the knowledge versus skills debate here, suffice it to say that most university prospectuses stress the importance of both.

But then I realised. What we should be developing in young people are capacities. Skills and knowledge flow from these.

It’s what employers look for when hiring people. It’s why we have phrases like “If you want something done, give it to a busy person.” We recognise that certain people have greater capacities in certain areas than others.

I look forward to seeing an education system that promotes capacities.

(oh, and when we get there, we should award badges) 😉

Image CC BY-NC-SA amy_b

What I talk about when I talk about user outcomes (2)

“Do you have a method of working?” the journalist Jean-Louis de Rambures asked Barthes in a 1973 interview for Le Monde. “It all depends on what you mean by method,” Barthes replied. “As far as methodology is concerned, I have no opinion. But if you’re talking about work habits . . . ” As he recounts his routines, we discover that the openness of his intellectual style is predicated on the exactness of his procedure. After describing in detail his preference for fountain pens over felt-tip or ballpoint, after recounting his experiments with the electric typewriter at the suggestion of Philippe Sollers, after detailing how he organizes his workplace and schedule in Paris and in the provinces, Barthes tells Rambures about his index-card system, which is based on slips of paper precisely one-quarter the size of a usual page: “At least that’s how they were until the day standards were readjusted within the framework of European unification (in my opinion, one of the cruelest blows of the Common Market).” We get the sense that he’s joking, but only sort of. Knowledge emerges out of arrangements and rearrangements of paper. Formats and protocols matter. Matter matters. “Insignificance is the locus of true significance. This should never be forgotten,” Barthes tells Rambures. “That is why it seems so important to me to ask a writer about his writing habits, putting things on the most material level, I would even say the most minimal level possible. This is an anti-mythological action.”

As regular readers are aware I suffer from migraines and so have been a looking at ways to reduce my amount of prolonged screen time. All screens area not equal, of course, and it’s mainly the length of time rather the number of ‘looks’ that makes the difference.

That’s why I’m always fascinated to find out the methods of working for people, both past and present, who were not only fantastically productive, but influential as well. In the above quotation from Barthes it’s evident that the physicality of his system made a difference in a way allied to embodied cognition.

The importance of domain knowledge

Everyone has domain knowledge. The guy in the self-storage warehouse, the History teacher, the researcher. Anyone can gather domain knowledge. It’s based on experience. The value comes in adding value to that domain knowledge.

How can we do that?

The first way is to share the deep, specialised knowledge that you’ve got. Give it away. Know about obscure 1980s Japanese comics? Share it. Help people. Found a cheap way to fix that long-discontinued engine that a couple of people you know have been having problems with? Likewise.

The second way is equally important. Seek out new domains. Find synergies between the two domains. Find metaphors and procedures from one that fit the other. Insights come through immersion and reflection.

Can you think of a third? :-p

Digital literacy: a function of poor design?

You’ll notice that I haven’t written a blog post about the new Apple iPad. There’s two reasons for that. First of all I haven’t got one (yet), and the second is that what would I have to say that hasn’t already been said? The iPad has been included in almost every presentation I’ve seen over the last few months as an example of outstanding design. The tech community have marvelled at the fact that people – such as the very young and the very old – are able to use the device intuitively. People haven’t had to have training to do things they and others find useful.

There are many definitions of digital literacy, the subject of my Ed.D. thesis. As I have discussed before, almost all of them are ambiguous in one of seven ways. Some of them are ambiguous due to semantics, some due to scope, and some because of scale. And some, quite frankly, as a result of a combination of two or three of the above. Many definitions of digital literacy conflate skills with knowledge, wrapping it all up in a Prensky-esque assertion that it is almost the preserve of ‘digital natives’.

This, of course, is nonsense. There is no reason why the mere use of a digital tool should require a separate literacy or, indeed, anything over-and-above the basic skills that primary schools should (and do) teach. It’s my belief that poor usability and bad interface design can be mitigated by the learning of procedural skills early in life. This in the eyes of older people who can remember life before that technology is assumed to be some kind of meta-cognition and a higher level skill that it actually is.

My favourite example of this is the ‘digital camera’. You don’t hear people of school age using this term. It’s an anachronism. Who uses film cameras in nowadays other than enthusiasts? The concept of taking a picture and it immediately appearing on a screen isn’t a difficult concept to grasp, my son happily snapping away as a 2 year-old and learning to frame shots as a 3 year-old.

It’s all about dominant paradigms. If you grew up taking photographs in the send-your-film-away-to-get-prints era, it takes a conceptual shift to move to digital photography. All the while you’re looking for the ‘equivalent’ of something in the digital system from the film system. It doesn’t quite work like that. It’s functionally similar but qualitatively different.

So, to my mind, much – but by no means all – of what we refer to as digital literacy consists of procedural skills. And the learning of such skills can be aided a great deal through effective interface design. For the second time this week I’m going to recommend you look at Chris Messina’s work – this time his rather useful Flickr collection of web usability stuff.

Digital literacy is a concept past its sell-by date. As I argue in an upcoming journal article, it’s lost pretty much any sense of creative ambiguity it may have once had. It also makes little sense from a procedural skills point of view.

We just need to design better user interfaces and nudge people into making more informed decisions. Enough of this talk of ‘digital literacy’! :-p

Image CC BY raneko

My Ed.D. thesis proposal: What does it mean to be ‘digitally literate’?

I submitted the second version of my Ed.D. thesis proposal a while back now. I had to re-submit as I failed the first submission. This was a bit of a shock to the system, never having failed anything academically before. It was actually partly my supervisor’s fault – who has now left the University of Durham and doesn’t have a doctorate himself… :p

I was advised to wait until I had the marks back for the thesis proposal before posting it on my blog. Upon reflection, I could see this was a sensible thing to do, so now I’ve heard back and I’ve passed I’m going to post it in its entirity. I received 63% for the following, which isn’t disastrous but less than I would have hoped for. Because it’s my second submission, however, the mark that’s recorded is 50%. At the end of the day, I’m not overly concerned: my Ed.D. overall is pass/fail… 🙂

The comments on the following were:

This is a solid proposal which provides a detailed reflection of the relevant literature in which the proposed study is to be grounded. Although covered in less detail than the literature section, the proposal provides an appropriate methodological base for the research. The proposal suggests a cross-cultural component and it is important in this context that similarities as well as ‘discrepancies’ are identified and that the study does not become unmanageable. In general this is a good solid proposal.

(emphasis mine)

The proposal itself follows after the ‘tag’ cloud that is indicative of its contents (courtesy of TweetClouds)

Continue reading “My Ed.D. thesis proposal: What does it mean to be ‘digitally literate’?”

My (finely crafted) information environment


There’s sea of information and knowledge out there. I do the best I can, strapping together several planks by way of information channels into a raft to stay afloat. I thought I’d share those here – both online and offline sources – and I’m definitely open to suggestions and comments!

Continue reading “My (finely crafted) information environment”

Some ideas about the structure of my thesis proposal essay

A few months ago when I had to submit an outline for my thesis proposal essay, I indicated that I wanted to look at ‘changing conceptions of, and reactions to, the nature of knowledge by educational institutions.’ My feeling was (and still is) that, as George Siemens so aptly put it in Knowing Knowledge,?

Knowledge has broken free from its moorings, its shackles.

The five questions I framed initially I know think are a little broad: instead I intend to focus on where stimulii for change originate, examples of how changes have taken place in schools, and then what changes can be expected in the future (short to medium-term). This would allow me to discuss ideas surrounding the changing nature of knowledge, the role of educational technology and the structure of a 21st-century curriculum.?

The work that I have done since September, both on my blog and the reading I have done specifically for my Ed.D., has shown me that there is a fundamental difference between ‘education’ and ‘schooling’. The former is an ideal, something almost Platonic in form, whereas the latter is the practical implementation of more abstract ideas, subject to multitude pressures from varying angles. It is important not to confuse these two notions, especially when talking about the ‘purpose’ of each.

A lot of what happens in education depends on how conceptions of society, knowledge, human nature and varying degrees of optimism as to what extent the existing (fairly delicate) status quo can be maintained. For it is this stability that educational institutions strive for, over and above creativity, inspirational teaching and motivating students to become lifelong learners. Upon reflection, this has to be the case given that schooling is compulsory and schools do not, in reality, face the same market pressures as commercial entities.

Thesis Proposal Mindmap

The work I’ve done in trying to synthesize (some of) my research so far is here.

(I’ve been using the Open Source program FreeMind to do my mindmapping – I’m still getting to grips with it…)?


The Pressure for Knowledge to Change

I am of the opinion that there are various pressures, not all currently identified (at least by me), on our conception of knowledge to change. Here are some obvious ones:

Pressure gauge

  • The demands of business and the need for new skills in the workplace (but what is driving organizational change?)
  • The pressure on teachers and schools by learners who have different skillsets, interests and motivations than previous generations (but where do these come from – the media?)
  • The ‘flattening world’ due to new technologies?

Property, 21st Century Knowledge, and Creative Commons

I have a feeling that the reason that what I would term ’21st-century forms of knowledge’ are not filtering into schools is because at their core they are fundamentally anti-capitalist. Traditionally, knowledge has meant power with access to the upper echelons being available only to the privileged and/or wealthy. The Internet (along with concomitant social trends) has changed that, leading to some talking about the world being ‘flat’.

It’s also tied into the idea of experts. Wikipedia has been shown to be just as reliable as the Encyclopedia Britannica, yet the former is edited by thousands of ‘amateurs’ whilst the latter is put together by a team of ‘professionals’. It’s certainly larger and a more valuable research for me, being always up-to-date and covering non-traditional information.

Private property is theft

(photo by antmoose @ Flickr)?

Proudhon is famous for his slogan ‘Property is theft!’ in his book What is Property? Whilst I’m no anarchist, I do believe that we have the wrong way of looking at questions surrounding the ‘ownership’ of various things. Take digital downloads of music, for example. The talk here is of ‘intellectual property’ and ‘copyright’. Nevertheless, the music industry is being forced to change the way they deal with customers and, indeed, their whole idea of the inherent ‘value’ of singles and albums due to changes in way the younger generations look at and value music themselves.?

It’s the same with knowledge. As Woodrow Wilson famously said:

I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.

If knowledge can reside in networks as well as groups, we need to be not just ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’, but interacting with one another and collaboratively building knowledge. Many blogs and various sources of information and knowledge on the Internet (including photos posted to Flickr) are released into the wild with a Creative Commons license. Instead of focusing on the things that you can’t do with the information/knowledge/photograph/whatever, it focuses on what you can do. The license for my blog, for example, states that my work can be shared or remixed in any way you like, provided that attribution is given, it is not used for commercial (i.e. for-proft) ends, and that any resultant remixing is also released under a Creative Commons license. Compare that to the restrictive practices of the RIAA…?

What does plagiarism look like in the 21st century? Can a line be drawn between that and being ‘inspired’ by another’s blog post? Where does the collaborative knowledge which comes as a result of wiki creation fit? Are examinations outdated? ?